In the Netflix (originally Channel 4) show, the fictional Hackney council estate, Summerhouse, forms the backdrop against which young people struggle with the temptations of violence, gangs and drugs. This is the narrative into which Drake, a suburban Torontonian child-actor-cum-rap-superstar, is inserting himself.
A caveat here, I am a British middle class Indian woman. I could never imagine throwing myself into a TV show about working class Indians in the West Indies say, or adopting their mannerisms in real life. Yes, we are collectively a part of a global diaspora, but my experience has nothing to do with theirs and I could never truly understand it. I have so much more privilege, and wouldn’t dream of using my social and financial capital to appropriate their culture.
This is exactly what Drake is doing. It’s not the first time either. His new album, More Life, is a love letter to grime, a genre of music that emerged from East London in the early 2000s. It features Giggs, Dave and Skepta. He has performed with Section Boyz and even went as far as to get a BBK tattoo, homage to Skepta, JME, Wiley and Jammer’s Boy Better Know collective. He uses East London lexicon - words like blem, mandem, ends - and also can do a mean UK accent, just check the immortal “man’s never been in Marquee when it’s shutdown, trusss mi daddi” opener from Skepta’s Shutdown.
I’m sure Drake is a huge grime fan, and there’s nothing wrong with showing love for what is currently the UK’s most important cultural output. But, there’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, and it’s got a lot to do with your intentions.
There’s little doubt that Drake lacks the authenticity that is integral to hip-hop – his bars are neither about crime or morality, instead he has always chosen fame as his muse, mostly ruminating on how lonely you can feel when you have it all. If the trappings of wealth feel alienating to Drake, imagine how the rest of us feel listening to him whine about it.
That’s where Top Boy comes in. It gives him legitimacy. When he claims “Nobody makes it from my ends” in One Dance most of us want to scream “Toronto is hardly the streets!” Now, we’ll shrug and say, I know mate, Hackney’s had it hard.
Top Boy is unique in that it forced mainstream television audiences to acknowledge a history and an ongoing struggle. It became a success based on the merits of the stories it shared and the actors like Kano and Ashley Walters who depicted them. I hope that Drake uses his relationship with the show to raise it up, drawing attention to stories of British working class black culture that need to be told, such as the character Lisa’s struggles with mental health, a topic rarely discussed in relation to BME communities.
Exposure is great for Top Boy, but overshadowing it isn’t.
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